Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Miasmas, Shadows, and Exhausted Giants
One such setting maestro is the Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón. In his novel The Angel's Game he describes his main character David Martín's reaction to standing in a turret of a house he is interested in buying as it looks over the city of Barcelona: "I would have my sinister tower rising over the oldest, darkest streets of the city, surrounded by the miasmas and shadows of that necropolis which poets and murderers had once called the 'Rose of Fire.'" At another point Martín offers this: "I left the house after dawn. Dark clouds crept over the rooftops, stealing the color from the streets. As I crossed Ciudadela Park I saw the first drops hitting the trees and exploding on the path like bullets, raising eddies of dust." By themselves, they may seem mundane, but when encountered throughout an entire novel these sort of descriptions coalesce into a vision of a dark and torn city that threatens to destroy the main character, even as Martín uses its stories to fuel his crime novels.
Reading Ruiz Zafón's treatment of Barcelona in this manner brought to mind a passage by Guy de Maupassant in his work Bel-Ami: "Du Roy saw before him a reddish light in the sky like the glow of an immense forge, and heard a vast, confused, continuous rumor, made up of countless different sounds, the breath of Paris panting this summer like an exhausted giant."
Another author who used extraordinary attention to setting was Daphne Du Maurier. The first sentence of her novel Rebecca hints that setting will be a critical component of the book: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again." Later, when her character is describing coming to the Manderly estate for the first time, she states that "on either side of us was a wall of colour, blood-red, reaching far above our heads. We were amongst the rhododendrons. There was something bewildering, even shocking, about the suddenness of their discovery. The woods had not prepared me for them. They startled me with their crimson faces, massed one upon the other in incredible profusion, showing no leaf, no twig, nothing but the slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic, unlike any rhododendron plant I seen before ..... These were monsters, rearing to the sky, massed like a battalion, too beautiful I thought, too powerful, they were not plants at all." One can almost feel the trepidation of Du Maurier's narrator dripping from the page. These types of descriptions are a major reason why many consider Rebecca to be one of the last great Gothic novels.
How about you? Do you have any descriptive masterpieces that have had a profound effect on you?
(Barcelona photo credit to ancama_99 (toni))